Black bear sightings in the Shenandoah Valley

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Virginia,Lynn R. Mitchell

It's that time of year again when the warm weather combined with an increased food source have black bears roaming the western Virginia mountains and surrounding areas.

Last week two black bears were seen on Afton Mountain, one crossing I-64 and the other reportedly hit by a Jeep Cherokee on Rt. 250.

In western Augusta County a bear has been hanging out around a family's home causing changes to their lifestyle as they now haul away garbage and take the children elsewhere to play outdoors.

A friend hiking in Shenandoah National Park this week saw a bear cross his path. Another friend who lives near the park's boundary heard a crash in her back yard a few months ago and looked out to see the bird feeder down and a black bear sprawled on the ground scooping up bird seed.



Last June a black bear was caught in Gypsy Hill Park in the heart of Staunton. During the same month, nearby friends lost their pet goats to a black bear.

Sheep farmers are feeling the loss, too, as they lose thousands of dollars worth of livestock to the increasing bear population.

In 2007, a bear tried to enter a neighbor's storage shed where corn was stored, pawing and pushing on the door until he was shooed away with a shotgun blast. Even though there are frequent bear sightings in our area, it was the first time one had been that threatening.

A year earlier an Augusta County hunter was attacked by a 600-pound black bear he had shot. When he approached the bear lying on the ground, it mauled him so badly that he was airlifted to the University of Virginia Hospital. In 2008, a Botetourt County hunter was also attacked when the bear he was tracking turned on him.

It is common to see bears at Big Meadows and Loft Mountain and along the Skyline Drive but they have become so numerous that the park rangers had to issue an aggresive bear alert two years ago.

The black bear population has steadily increased over the years as protected bears from federal areas venture beyond Shenandoah National Park and the Washington National Forest onto private lands, causing damage to crops and livestock. Hunters killed 1,633 black bears in 2008 with the bulk of them coming from Rockingham County.

Complaints of bears damaging agriculture have increased 44% over the past 20 years. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries tracks the bear population, trapping nusiance bears to return to the wild. They have been relocating bears for years, trapping and driving them deep into the national forests for release.

Al Bourgeois and David Kocka, Valley biologists with Game and Inland Fisheries who live in Augusta County, are the local experts who trap nuisance bears. I guess they could be called the "Bear Busters." They know first-hand the damage rogue bears can cause to farmers, domestic animals, and homes. Their advice when bears are hanging around is to remove outdoor bird feeders, trash cans, pet food, and any other sources of food. If the problem continues, call the "Bear Busters."

For more information about safety around black bears in Virginia, visit the Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries website.

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Lynn R. Mitchell

Special to the Examiner
The Washington Examiner